Climber Chris Kalman, 31, wrestles with the identity crisis of many outdoors-loving creatives, bouncing back and forth from writing to climbing all over the world to having a real job to developing new climbing routes and then figuring out what he’s going to do next. He’s written for Rock & Ice, Alpinist, Climbing Magazine, and The Dirtbag Diaries and has toiled long and hard on a labor-of-love climbing guidebook along with photographer and climber Matt Van Biene. He’s posted his thoughtful and analytical musings on his website, Fringe’s Folly, since August 2014.
In 2015, he landed a job as a backcountry ranger at Sequoia National Park. We asked him what that was like.
If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asked you what you did for work, what did/would you tell them?
What was a typical day like for you, starting when you got to work and ending when you got home for the day?
I was stationed in a yurt deep in the Sequoia National Park backcountry along the Great Western Divide – so there wasn’t really any “getting” to work. I was there all the time. I would wake up, make breakfast, call in my plan for the day on the radio, hike there, and do whatever work for the day I had in mind – whether cleaning up campsites, busting up illegal firepits, interfacing with the public, or toilet paper patrol missions.
How did your job affect someone’s day?
The duties of the job were kind of rambling and indistinct. The take-home message for me was that we are all visitors here in the parks and we are all visitors because we love their astounding beauty. Every time I met someone on the trail, I tried to engage them in conversation that would help them reach, recall, or revel in that conclusion on their own. You could say I made a difference by picking up garbage, or removing soiled undies from campsites, or trash from bear boxes, or helicoptering out someone who in all honesty probably would have been okay on foot, or giving some shoe goo to a guy in need. But in my mind, what I did to most affect peoples’ days was to bring to their attention just how incredible their surroundings (and our opportunity to enjoy them as visitors) were.
On another level, I tried really hard to ingratiate myself to the visitors to help restore rangering some of its lost dignity. I know a lot of people who have been mistreated by law enforcement rangers in the National Parks. I’ve had plenty of run-ins of my own, many of which left a very sour taste in my mouth. Most people don’t understand that not all rangers are law enforcement. And those who are, by and large, only are because you make better pay and can get a permanent job. You get some pretty aggro rangers in parks just like anywhere, but most of the people in the green and gray are more like your average hiker than your average cop.
Backcountry rangers in particular are a special breed and they are basically of the same mindset as most people who wander into the backcountry. We’re all there just because we love it out there, not to enforce a bunch of arbitrary rules. By getting back on the same page with the public – whether that meant sharing an afterwork cup of wine with them or just shooting the shit for a while – I had a great starting point for clearing up some misconceptions about rangers, as well as providing explanations for rules such as alpine fire regulations with a more open-minded audience. Nobody will listen to the reasons for your rules if they don’t like you. But if they like you, then you’ve got a chance.
What was your first job in the outdoor industry?
It’s an interesting question. I always thought the outdoor industry just meant any job that requires you once a year to convene in Salt Lake City with a plaid shirt on and drink beer amid a bunch of tightly packed booths and way too much “product.” I never considered the National Park Service the outdoor industry. It’s really not. It’s the service industry. The NPS serves the land, and the people. And in that capacity, every park I’ve been in takes those roles very seriously. Nobody’s trying to sell you on shit – maybe in the visitor centers, sure, but not the mechanics, or custodians, or rangers, or trail crew, or anybody who is on foot in the park doing the physical work to keep it afloat.
Anyway, for a short answer to your question, 2007 – I started worked on trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. That was my first job after college.
How does someone get your backcountry ranger job?
The backcountry ranger job is a very coveted park position and the one in Sequoia has got to be one of the best in the nation. The Southern Sierra in Sequoia and Kings Canyon is incredibly vast, and mostly under (or un) explored. Rangers and crashed airplanes have both disappeared in that backcountry for decades without being detected, in spite of major search efforts.
To get the gig, you have to jump through all the hoops. Go to USAJobs.com fill out the resume, find the listing (among thousands). You have to search throughout the year because the job listing may only be up for a couple random unannounced weeks in any month you like (but usually wintertime). You have to score very well on the questionnaire – like nearly 100 percent. To do that, you have to have past experience on your own living in the wilderness for weeks on end, not to mention a lot of past time in the High Sierra or a comparable environment. You have to be an EMT, you have to qualify for the GS-5 using education or past government employment – it’s a huge rigamarole. It’s actually a very difficult job to get.
What were the pros of your job?
I’m not much into buying and selling shit. I think most of what is for sale in this world is garbage, and most of it people would be happier without. So basically, I’d be horrible at a huge swath of the jobs in the modern American economy. I’ve even tried really hard this past year to get jobs in marketing since I’m a pretty decent writer – what a joke.
I think the biggest pro of my job was that I buy in wholeheartedly to the Park Service mission. Not the part that involved forcibly removing native peoples from their lands (don’t act surprised) to create the parks; but the part that after doing so said “The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” I stand by that, and I believe it is one of the most important things the United States of America does as a nation.
It was easy for me to preach the John Muir gospel out there, because I believe in it. And I was inundated with it. The late great Randy Morgenson – a backcountry ranger for Sequoia/Kings who died on patrol more than a decade ago – said backcountry rangers “got paid in sunsets.” It’s true. And by that metric, last summer was my most lucrative ever. It’s probably a better metric than one measured in dollars and pennies, but that’s just my two cents.
What were the cons?
I write this less than a week after telling my awesome supervisor from last season that I won’t be returning. Mostly, I feel like the world’s biggest moron to be giving up what I wholeheartedly believe was the best job I’ll ever have.
A three- to five-month sojourn in the wilderness sounds mighty nice – but if you do it every year of your life… well, some people can make it work. Some of the rangers I worked with had significant others and kids and had been doing it for decades. Maybe it was something easier to do back in the day, or maybe I just lack imagination. But I have a girlfriend and dreams of one day making more than like $12,000 in a year, and owning a home, and being able to start a family if I get the notion to. I don’t want lack of money, or lack of time (because I’m living in a yurt 12 miles into the backcountry) to be the reason I spend my life alone. I love solitude – more than most people I think – but not that much.
It’s sad, and it’s kind of a rotten deal. You don’t make that much money, it’s hard as nails to get a permanent job (I don’t know if there even ARE full-time permanent backcountry ranger jobs in this country – but there definitely aren’t in SEKI). If you want to make more, or have a better shot at a full-time position, you either go the cop track, or the desk-jockey track – and neither of those sounds remotely appealing to me. Did I mention there’s no retirement unless you’re commissioned or permanent? We’ve got a guy who’s worked there for like 40 years or something. He’s not going to see a penny of retirement. I’m not tough enough for that. That shit scares me.
I told my boss that if he could waive a magic wand and give me year-round employment, with shorter hitches in the backcountry so I could maybe have a family one day, health and retirement benefits, I would sign on the dotted line right now for a 30-year contract. And I still would. But my boss from last year doesn’t have that kind of sway, and neither does his boss, or his boss. That kind of shit goes all the way up to budget finance committees in Congress, and the NPS has been getting the shaft there ever since the economy tanked in 2008.
Working for the parks is the noblest, purest, and best work I’ve ever done. And I’ll always stand by that. But I have to look out for my future, and it’s just really hard to see with the NPS. I thought maybe I could combine NPS work with writing to make a decent living, but it often feels like the only future bleaker than that of Ranger Chris is Writer Chris. I have a ton of unpublished work, including multiple manuscripts, doing little more right now than collecting dust. I guess that’s what you get for majoring in philosophy – writing, rangering, and dust. A lot of sunsets, but not a lot of money.
If you can make it work, more power to you. I did for a long time. But I’m 31 years old, and still earning below the poverty line. What’s more, I can’t imagine how I ever in my life could expect or hope to climb above it. I’m scared, plain and simple. If I wasn’t, I’d never leave.